Andrei Kavun: Cadets (Kursanty, 2005)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2006
In a gripping scene from the 2005 television series Cadets, a woman who runs the commissary at the Saratov Military Academy is interrogated by one of the academy’s officers. Efrosin'ia Aleksandrovna, the woman in question, is accused of forming a “criminal alliance” with one of the cadets in order to steal food and sell it at the illegal market that has sprung up in wartime Saratov. Major Bykov, Efrosin'ia’s accuser, conducts the interview under a large portrait of Stalin. As his questions grow more urgent, Efrosin'ia turns to the image and declares:
"Iosif Vissarionovich, I am innocent in your eyes. There are no oats on my soul. I haven’t taken a single bit of grain, Iosif Vissarionovich. I went to the market once to buy boots. Here, I will hand them over to the Red Army soldiers. If Iosif Vissarionovich tells me, I will go to the front lines."
Bykov, exasperated by this behavior, yells at Efrosin'ia: “Stalin is not a god. Stop it right now. Stop this circus.”
This single scene, in Part 5 of the 10-part serial, reveals a great deal about the wartime Soviet Union presented in Cadets. Based on the memoirs of Petr Todorovskii and directed by Andrei Kavun, the series depicts a society of fear, hope, theft, interrogations, heroism, political machinations, black markets, prostitution, and death. At a time when many scholars and journalists have charged contemporary Russians with “failing the Stalin test” (Mendelson 3), and, thus, not succeeding in coming to terms with the Soviet past, this award-winning popular television series depicts a complex view of the effects of Stalinism on Soviet citizens. Part of the ongoing effort to revise the narrative about the Great Patriotic War on screens big and small, Cadets tackles Stalin and Stalinism head on. Through television programs like this one, Russians may not be suffering “memory disorders” or failing “Stalin tests” after all (Ferretti 39), but instead may be wrestling with the legacies of the war and the Stalin era in meaningful ways.
Cadets focuses upon a group of cadets who enroll at the Saratov Military Academy in the winter of 1942. The plot follows the lives of two young men, Petr Glushchenko (based on Petr Todorovskii), a provincial lad who has not seen much of the USSR before, and Rem Raiskii, a clever, worldly young man from St. Petersburg. The two become friends and, together with two other cadets, Lesha Shavel and Iura Nikitin, form a band of brothers as they train for ninety days before seeing frontline duty. The encounters these four kursanty have form the essence of the serial and its examination both of the war and of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The story told in Cadets can, therefore, be used as an excellent test case in how Stalinism is being understood on the small screen.
Sheila Fitzpatrick has eloquently described how Soviet citizens tried to live ordinary lives in the extraordinary circumstances of Stalinism and how they developed forms of behavior and survival strategies to cope with Soviet social and political circumstances. As Fitzpatrick describes it, the Stalinist 1930s:
is about crowded communal apartments, abandoned wives and husbands who failed to pay child support, shortages of food and clothing, and endless queuing. It is about popular grumbling at these conditions, and how the government reacted to it. It is about the webs of bureaucratic red tape that often turned everyday life into a nightmare, and about the ways that ordinary citizens tried to circumvent them, primarily patronage and the ubiquitous system of personal connections known as blat. It is about what it meant to be privileged in Stalinist society, as well as what it meant to be one of the millions of social outcasts. It is about the police surveillance that was endemic to this society, and the epidemics of terror like the Great Purges that periodically cast it into turmoil. (2-3)
Fitzpatrick’s characterization perfectly encapsulates the depiction of the wartime Stalinist system in Cadets. As the series opens, a group of young, eager young men arrive in Saratov full of optimism that they will soon be on their way to the front in order to end the war against fascism. Petr, Rem, Lesha, and Iura not only form a bond amongst themselves, they also act as the major characters that attempt to lead “normal lives” in the circumstances of war. Petr (Andrei Chadov) serves as the main narrator throughout the story, providing voice-over commentary in an elderly voice that is meant to be Todorovskii/Petr. He falls in love with a local girl, Iana (Kseniia Kniazeva), who lives with her mother, Elzhbeta, after Iana’s father has abandoned them. Iana, only seventeen, works at a factory to help her mother make ends meet. Eventually Petr and Iana marry in the last episode of the series. Rem (Ivan Stebunov) also loves Iana and gets involved in a theft of oats with an officer at the academy, Lieutenant Dobrov (Igor' Petrenko). Dobrov, the son of a general, has connections at the top echelons of Stalinist society, but his father has placed him behind the frontlines, a situation from which Dobrov longs to be free. He falls in love with Elzhbeta, a woman fifteen years his senior. The other members of their band of brothers also immerse themselves in the life of Saratov. Lesha (Pavel Vorozhtsov) is a wartime refugee from Minsk who has lost contact with his family. He eventually falls in love with Motia, a fellow refugee who arrives in Saratov to find Iura. Both Motia and Iura (Aleksandr Golubev) have grown up in a Soviet orphanage. Iura falls in love with Liza, a local woman who sleeps with cadets and officers in order to make ends meet.
These stories of love between cadets and women in Saratov are interwoven with the stories of the officers who run the academy. Captain Likhovol (Aleksei Gorbunov) runs combat training in the academy. A lifelong soldier who was wounded at the front, he longs to return to action. Major Bykov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) is the head of the political section. He, too, has been wounded at the front in a tank fire, an event that has left him with serious facial scarring. Bykov’s wife and children have died in the war, and he falls in love with the academy’s doctor, Raisa (Natalia Panova), a former frontline nurse who also has lost her family. Corporal Panasiuk (Andrei Merzlikin) acts as the drill instructor for the cadets and torments them throughout for their physical failings. Eventually, however, he emerges as a sympathetic character who wants “his doves” to succeed. Less sympathetic is Major Dodin, the chemical defense instructor who uses his position at the academy to torture his students and to avoid frontline service.
As these characters fall in love, go to the movies, attend holiday celebrations, and play practical jokes, they perform these normal activities in extraordinary circumstances. The wartime Saratov in which these characters live is a city defined by shortages. The cadet’s rations are cut in order to feed frontline soldiers, while Saratov’s residents experience shortages as a continuation of prewar Stalinist policies. City activities are centered in the black market, a lively place where inflation reigns and virtually everything is for sale. As Petr (in his role as narrator) comments: “Now you can buy and sell anything easily. But back then, for a Soviet man, for a Komsomol member, or just for any young man, it was a traumatic experience to trade in the market. But hunger gives a rough ride to anyone.” Petr bargains for bread in one scene, Iana attempts to sell a fur coat in another, while Motia steals from a food-stand later in the series. Elzhbeta sells a dress at the market for 1,000 rubles and is followed home by a man who beats her and takes the money. This circumstance leads Dobrov, accompanied by Rem, to steal food from the academy’s storehouse in order to feed Elzhbeta and Iana. The extraordinary difficulties of living a normal life in these circumstances leads Petr to comment several times: “anger rose in my soul. I was angry at the factory [where Iana works], the meager rations, and at the war.”
The anger felt by Petr is an emotion evoked by the series. Petr and his fellow cadets are angry at the circumstances of shortages, angry at the arbitrary abuse of power perpetrated by Dodin and others, and angry at political infighting. They turn their anger into forms of resistance, both large and small. Much as the depiction of Saratov offers a visual representation of Fitzpatrick’s “everyday Stalinism,” so too does it present an intricate look at how Soviet citizens resisted the Stalinist state. Rather than accept the totalitarian model of an atomized, passive citizenry, many historians today situate resistance within “a wide continuum of societal responses to Stalinism that also included accommodation, adaptation, acquiescence, apathy, internal emigration, opportunism, and positive support” (Viola 1). Resistance itself can take many forms, ranging from economic disobedience and survival strategies to strikes and uprisings.
Cadets depicts a Stalinist society deeply divided over accommodation and resistance to the state. In addition to the thriving black market and the thefts, students do not pay attention to political lecturers and openly mock many of their instructors. Shavel confesses to the theft of oats in order to protect his friends and receives solitary confinement as his reward. All of the cadets refuse orders and refuse to name the thief when called upon. Liza lectures Motia (who has told Liza that her clothes are too nice) that “this isn’t a Party cell meeting.” Residents of Saratov and Soviet cadets alike cross themselves and evoke religious beliefs in the midst of war. Ultimately, Cadets provides a representation of a multifaceted society that resists Stalinism in numerous ways, just as it depicts the attempts of Soviet citizens to live under the circumstances of Stalinism and total war. In this regard it follows the themes of other recent series such as A Man of War (Chelovek voiny; dir. Aleksei Muradov, 2005) and Red Chapel (Krasnaia kapella; dir. Aleksandr Aravin, 2004) that focus less upon heroism and more upon “the fulfillment of military duty in the face of adverse circumstances and the attempt to maintain human dignity and moral integrity.” (Beumers, KinoKultura 12)
Terror in My Soul
Less than halfway into the first episode, one of the cadets is summoned to the First Section of the Academy, the wing of the NKVD that kept watch over young officers in training and checked their credentials. The narrator ominously notes: “We hated being summoned there. It had a horrible taste of fear.” This scene and the subsequent comment establish the major tension in Cadets. Underneath a portrait of Stalin, the Lieutenant in charge of the local NKVD, Kozhin (Pavel Maikov), interrogates cadets about their family background, investigates the thefts and other forms of resistance in which the cadets participate, threatens the academy’s officers, and attempts to fulfill the quotas established by the political center to persecute “enemies of the people.” We first see Kozhin at work in episode two, as he sits behind a desk and marks the files of the cadets with different colored pencils, a classification system that helps him define who has the right sort of background and who does not. By the third episode, Kozhin emerges as the villain of the series but also as the figure that wields the most power in this microcosm of Stalinist life. In this regard, Cadets also follows the recent trend of Russian television serials and films about the war that stress, as Alexander Prokhorov has argued, “that the state sacrificed and betrayed its own citizens” during the Great Patriotic War (KinoKultura 13). In serials such as Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat; dir. Nikolai Dostal', 2004), this betrayal takes the form of using Soviet citizens as front line cannon fodder. Cadets portrays a betrayal that has its roots in the 1930s and the practices of the Stalinist state to categorize its citizens.
Kozhin’s world encompasses every character in the series and helps to explain why normal life in wartime Stalinist society was so difficult to attain. The narrator sums up the conflicts endemic within Stalinist society at war by dryly stating: “Kalashnikov is required to send 120 officers to the front, Kozhin is required to find three enemies of the people.” When Kozhin is made aware of the theft, the commander of the training program indignantly asks the NKVD officer if he plans to interrogate the whole academy and, therefore, “cripple them now, weeks before they head to the front, because of some oats.” Kozhin replies: “you should write Stalin if you want pity.”
Kozhin exerts his power by bringing everyone, regardless of rank, into his world. Dobrov, fearful that his theft will be uncovered, sends Rem on a combat training mission to a building that is targeted for mortar fire. Rem is saved by Petr and later Dobrov claims that Rem “misunderstood” his instructions. Rather than blame the lieutenant, Petr states Dobrov, like everyone in this atmosphere, “got frightened.” He further elucidates: “Dobrov wasn’t the exception. Even these heroes [Kalashnikov, Bykov] got frightened. They didn’t fear bombs or bullets. But they were afraid of the wry smile of this man [Kozhin].” Later the narrator asks: “What prevented us all—heroes, soldiers, combat officers—from resisting these people? Why were we all so afraid of them?” Only two characters stand up to the NKVD officer. Likhovol, drunk one night, confronts Kozhin, asking him: “why are you bossing everyone around here?” and calling him a “rear rat.” His reward is to be sent back to the front, news that Kozhin personally delivers to Likhovol’s wife. Iura also confronts Kozhin, punching him in the face and then briefly escapes the academy for fear of what will happen to him. The question posed by Petr, though, hangs as a rhetorical one for contemporary audiences, a difficult one to be tackled in order to understand Soviet existence as a whole.
Kozhin’s world is also a world of collaboration and denunciations. As the investigation over theft intensifies, Bykov, under pressure from the NKVD officer to find the culprits, attempts to get Petr to spy on his classmates “as a Communist.” The narrator states: “this was the first time someone tried to turn me into a stool pigeon.” Bykov’s attempts to use Petr grow more serious, and in a later meeting he places a document in front of Petr that explains the young man has been dismissed from the academy for covering up a theft and sent to a penal battalion. The letter, Petr is told, will be sent to his mother, unless Petr makes a “choice” in the next three days. As Petr storms out, he walks by a bust of Stalin and states: “I’m not a traitor.”
The web of denunciations and attempts to use fear gains further clarification in episode 8. Kozhin sleeps with Liza and uses her to get information about the cadets and the officers who serve as her clients. The narrator observes: “At the front I learned Liza was a stool pigeon. Some captain told me. I didn’t hate her. I understood by then that we all waged our personal wars for our families. We waged this war to the best of our natural abilities.” Liza, we also learn in the episode, is German. As Kozhin visits her, he reminds her of the fixed categories of nationhood in Stalin’s USSR: “you speak Russian, but that makes no difference—you’re German.” Kozhin, therefore, acts as an enforcer of the 1939 Soviet passport directives that targeted “foreign” nationalities living within the USSR. Used to identify potentially subversive groups in Stalinist Russia, the requirement of all citizens to list their nationality became the basis for massive persecutions of “enemy nations” after the Nazi invasion. As a “German,” Liza lacked an escape-hatch in this purification drive. 
The quest to meet state quotas and to establish guilt over the theft of oats ends with the arrest of Otar, a Georgian cadet, and with the eventual confession by Dobrov. Otar had been on guard duty when Rem and Dobrov robbed the warehouse and had seen Rem, but decided not to report him. Because of his ethnicity, however, Kozhin and his colleagues view Otar as an enemy. He is arrested and learns from Kozhin that his father has been captured by Germans, making them both traitors in the eyes of the Stalinist authorities. Otar’s arrest poisons the atmosphere of the school, and the narrator states: “it was the first time in my life I saw a man arrested. His life was smashed into pieces without any tragic emotions. Later I saw a lot of such arrests both at the front and in the rear. They were horrible in their commonplace atmosphere.” Kozhin’s investigations also lead to the arrest of Bykov, who allegedly covered up the crime. Consumed by guilt, Dobrov admits to Kozhin that he stole the grain. As he has his hair shorn, about to be sent to the camps, the narrator comments: “Dobrov wasn’t the son of a general anymore. But he felt himself to be free for the first time in his life.” Despite Dobrov’s confession, both Bykov and Otar remain imprisoned for the crime. The quota has been met.
Kozhin’s investigations uncover the masks that Soviet citizens often wore to cover their pasts. In the course of the interrogations, the viewer learns that Iura became an orphan because both his parents were arrested as enemies of the people in 1937. Similarly, we learn that Liza has hidden the details of her ethnicity, just as Otar has tried to overcome his by becoming a Soviet patriot. In its examination of the world of Kozhin, Cadets depicts the multiple ways in which fear and purging operated in Stalinist society. From strategies of survival to the stain of ethnicity, arrests and deportations force all of the characters to live with fear or resist it.
Minutes into the series, the narrator introduces the commander of the Saratov school, Colonel Kalashnikov, with the following words: “he was a former White Guards officer who lost an arm in the 1939 Winter War [against Finland]. He wanted to make us decent people, too. He would die on 8 May 1945 of a heart attack. He was fortunate to live to see victory.”
One of the extraordinary aspects of Cadets are the narrator’s devastating comments about the fate of the people depicted over the course of the serial. The series, therefore, acts as a powerful tool for exploring the lives of the average soldier during the war, providing the names, backgrounds, emotions, lives, and deaths of what Catherine Merridale has called “Ivan’s War.” The Soviet Union’s allies in the war tended to view all Red Army soldiers as “Ivan,” while the mythic version of the war propagated in the USSR itself tended to do the same—as a result, Amir Weiner has called “Private Ivan” “the MIA of Soviet historiography” (305). Cadets takes viewers away from this collective focus to the individual lives of soldiers and civilians.
Over the course of ten episodes we learn the fate of all the characters: Petr survives the war, as does Lt. Dobrov, who later encounters the narrator (Todorovskii) in 1968. Panasiuk and Lesha also survive, as does Kozhin, although we learn that “in 1953, when Beria is arrested, Kozhin will shoot himself in the supermarket bathroom. At that time dozens of Chekists did so.” The other characters are not as lucky. In the seventh episode, we learn that Iura “will never get old. He’ll die in August 1943 after blasting himself and three Germans with a hand grenade.” Zhen'ka, a young neighbor boy of Captain Likhovol, who desperately wants to fight, “will cross half the European continent with the troops. He’ll be killed near Warsaw. A Chechen from the SS Caucasian regiment will kill him with his saber.” Bykov, after surviving the tank fire at the front, does not survive his arrest: “he’ll be shot in his cell soon afterwards.” Likhovol, meanwhile, gets his wish and returns to the front: “at the end of April 1945, he will receive a deadly bullet in his back from a Hitler Youth boy. Amazingly, the boy will resemble Zhen'ka.” As for Otar, he is sent to fight in the penal battalions: “Otar and 150 other soldiers in his shtrafbat will perish in January 1943. Their barge will be hit by a 250-pound bomb while crossing the Volga.” Rem’s fate is the last one about which we learn in this ongoing discussion: “Only two days after graduation he will be killed by a German marksman in the Stalingrad tractor factory. The bullet will hit him right in his heart.”
Cadets also reveals the fates of the civilian men and women who lived through the war. Liza, we learn, leaves for Astrakhan in an attempt to escape her ethnic origins. “In two months she’ll be shot by a drunken colonel. He’ll confide to the investigators that he killed her out of jealousy.” Motia, the orphan full of life who sets off to the front as a nurse, prompts the narrator to claim: “I’m so eager to narrate to you one story with a happy ending. But Motia never made it to the front. Two hours after departure the medical train will be bombed. No one survived.” Worst of all is the loss of Iana and Elzhbeta: “even the first letter I wrote from the front was returned marked with an ‘addressee not valid’ stamp. My first letter and the rest of them. After the victory I returned to Saratov, but there were other people living in their apartment. No one knew anything about Iana or her mother.”
These individual stories give us a sense of the fates of millions of people who lived through the war and the Stalinist purges. Together, the fates of these characters form a “web of paradox” that ranges from suicides to disappearances, yet, like the stories of thousands who actually lived through the war and remembered it in their own ways afterwards, they offer “true war stories” (Merridale 6-7; O’Brien 67-86). Ivan’s war, a nameless war of millions, therefore becomes the war of Petia, Iana, Rem, Nikitin, Motia, and Liza.
The Good Stalin?
Given the depiction of wartime society on display, Cadets has produced some controversy. The Communist Party of Russia has officially called the series “malicious slander against the Red Army and the Soviet regime.” In particular, the KPRF reviewer of the film denounced the “spite” many cadets exhibit toward the regime, the criminal and black market activities the cadets took part in, and the way in which the serial allegedly undermines the “gift of victory” veterans gave to postwar memory (Abdorin).  Audiences made Cadets the highest-rated series during the week it appeared, an endorsement Igor' Petrenko took as a sign that Russian viewers were embracing more serious historical topics that went beyond “criminal and dull everyday life histories.”  Even President Putin has praised Todorovskii and his serial, declaring that Todorovskii’s frontline experiences make him a “real master” who inspires audiences. The serial became the first Russian television series to be a finalist for the International Emmy awards, losing to a Danish series. Aside from the extreme criticisms offered by the Communist Party, therefore, Cadets has not produced an outcry of protest like those surrounding Penal Battalion and the 2006 feature film Bastards (Svolochi; dir. Aleksandr Atanesian). In fact, one of the critics of the former serial, the military historian Makhmut Gareev, cited Cadets as a series that did not “distort history” as he believed Penal Battalion had done (qtd. Elenskii).
In his essay (later his book) about the memory of Stalin, Victor Erofeyev argues that many Russians refuse to believe in the “bad” Stalin who oppressed and tortured; instead they believe in the “good” Stalin who saved the Russian nation during the war (47). The idea of the “good Stalin” serves as useful shorthand for any number of arguments that conclude Russians have failed to confront their past in general and the Stalinist past in particular. What emerges from, Cadets, however, is not a good Stalin, but a complex, multilayered view of Stalinist society at war. The happiness and courage of ordinary Soviet soldiers operate next to vindictiveness, denunciations, and state violence against its citizens. If Cadets can be seen as an essay exam rather than the multiple choice tests favored by pollsters who posit that Russians are failing to come to terms with their past, perhaps Russians are passing after all. Just as Efrosin'ia confronts Stalin directly in the scene from episode 5, so too do all the characters (and by extension, viewers) eventually have to confront the portrait on the wall. The serial closes with a new class of cadets entering the Saratov academy. Facing a giant portrait of Stalin, they too are about to come to terms with all the complexities and contradictions of living in that era.
Stephen M. Norris
Miami University, Ohio
Abdorin, I. F. “Zlobnye ‘Kursanty’—ocherednaia kleveta na Krasnuiu Armiiu”; available online
at the KPRF website
Beumers, Birgit. “The Serialization of the War.” KinoKultura 12 (2006)
Elenskii, Oleg. “Kakuiu ‘pravdu’ ishchut Shtrafbat i Kursanty?” Nezavisimaia gazeta 2 April 2005
Erofeev, Viktor. Khoroshii Stalin. Moskva: ZebraE, 2005.
Erofeyev, Victor. “The Good Stalin.” New Yorker (28 December 1998 ―4 January 1999): 44- 47.
Ferretti, Maria. “Memory Disorder: Russia and Stalinism.” Russian Politics and Law 41.6 (November/December 2003): 38-82.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
Hirsch, Francine. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005.
Holquist, Peter. “State Violence as Technique: The Logic of Violence in Soviet Totalitarianism.” In Stalinism: The Essential Readings. Ed. David Hoffmann. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. 133-156.
Mendelson, Sarah and Theodore Gerber. “Failing the Stalin Test: Russians and Their Dictator.” Foreign Affairs 85.1 (January/February 2006): 2-8.
Merridale, Catherine. Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945. NY: Metropolitan Books, 2006.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990).
Prokhorov, Alexander. Review of Penal Battalion. KinoKultura 13 (2006)
Viola, Lynne, ed. Introduction. Contending with Stalinism: Soviet Power and Popular Resistance in the 1930s. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. 1-17.
Weiner, Amir. “Nature, Nurture, and Memory in a Socialist Utopia: Delineating the Soviet Socio-Ethnic Body in the Age of Socialism.” American Historical Review 104.4 (October 1999): 1114-1155.
―. “Saving Private Ivan: From What, Why, and How?” Kritika 1 / 2 (Spring 2000): 305-336
1] See Hirsch, chapter 7; on the “passportization of the population,” see Holquist 148-150.
2] The term “purification drive,” as well as valuable information about how World War II changed ethnic thinking in the USSR, can be found in Weiner.
3] See similar charges leveled in Sovetskaia Rossiia (6 February 2005)
4] Quoted in “Serialy dorosli do kino” Izvestiia (20 September 2005)
Cadets, Russia and Belarus, 2005
Color, 10 episodes, 45 minutes each
Director: Andrei Kavun
Screenplay: Zoia Kudria, based on the memoirs of Petr Todorovskii
Cinematography: Vladimir Bashta
Music: D. Sysoev, Garik Sukachev
Starring: Andrei Chadov, Ivan Stebunov, Igor' Peternko, Aleksandr Golubev, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Pavel Maikov, Aleksei Gorbunov, Elena Iakovleva, Iurii Belaev, Elena Ksenofontova, Pavel Vorozhtsov, Andrei Merezlikin, Iaroslav Boiko, Leonid Timtsunik, Nelli Gabuniia, Natal'ia Panova, Kseniia Kniazeva, Daria Mishchenko, Ania Tsukanova, Shota Gomisoniia.
Producers: Valerii Todorovskii and Il'ia Neretin
Production: Channel Rossiia, Rekun-TV, Belarus' Film
Andrei Kavun: Cadets (Kursanty, 2005)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2006